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Homemade face masks for sale blow in the wind outside of a business, Tuesday, May 12, 2020, in San Antonio. San Antonio continues to encourage face masks or coverings as well as social distancing in an an effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic. (AP) Homemade face masks for sale blow in the wind outside of a business, Tuesday, May 12, 2020, in San Antonio. San Antonio continues to encourage face masks or coverings as well as social distancing in an an effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic. (AP)

Homemade face masks for sale blow in the wind outside of a business, Tuesday, May 12, 2020, in San Antonio. San Antonio continues to encourage face masks or coverings as well as social distancing in an an effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic. (AP)

Madeline Heim
By Madeline Heim July 30, 2020

Wisconsin GOP lawmaker wrong that masks have been "proven ineffective" against COVID-19

If Your Time is short

  • A growing body of evidence shows that wearing a mask, even a cloth mask, can reduce transmission of COVID-19 

  • Schraa shared links to unreputable sources that found masks ineffective, while leading medical journals, federal and world health officials, research universities and President Donald Trump have said masks do work to cut down transmission

As coronavirus cases climb in Wisconsin, more and more face mask policies have been put into effect. Some apply to specific settings, such as stores or government-owned buildings, others more universally, such as in Dane County and the cities of Milwaukee and Green Bay. 

Indeed, on July 30, 2020, Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide mask order.

Most mask mandates have come with exceptions, such as for young children and people whose medical conditions may make it unsafe to wear one. 

Opponents argue mask mandates endanger personal freedoms, that wearing a mask can cause carbon dioxide poisoning (an idea that has been debunked by scientists) and that some types of face coverings won’t do anything to stop transmission of the coronavirus. 

State Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, voiced that theory in an interview with the Oshkosh Northwestern on July 24, 2020, after sharing links to sources on Facebook that suggest masks do not work as they are intended. His comments come as the city of Oshkosh weighs a mandate on masks in public spaces. 

"If you think the government should be mandating us wearing masks that are proven ineffective just for the sake of giving a false sense of security for people, what else are you going to agree to?" Schraa told the Northwestern. 

Is Schraa correct when he claims that wearing masks has been "proven ineffective"?

No. 

Let’s take a look.

New guidance to match a new virus 

When asked for backup, spokeswoman Linda Palmer said the comment was aimed at whether governments should be allowed to mandate masks, and that "he did not make a direct statement that all masks are always totally ineffective." 

But Schraa did say — here and in other forums — that he believed masks weren’t effective. In conversations on his Facebook page, he linked to articles stating that masks do not prevent transmission of viruses. 

It’s important to note that, at one point, federal health officials were not recommending that everyone wear masks, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began advising widespread mask use in April and hasn’t changed its stance since. 

Critics often use that reversal to argue against the effectiveness of masks. 

But because this is a novel virus, the CDC, the medical community and everyday Americans alike are learning about it at the same time — and as more evidence emerged about how many asymptomatic people could be spreading the virus, guidance on who should wear masks shifted with it. 

(The CDC now estimates that 40% of infections could be among people who feel perfectly healthy.)

Featured Fact-check

Do masks protect others from you? 

If you’re not a health care worker, you’re likely wearing a cloth mask instead of an N95 respirator, which filters the large majority of airborne particles and thus protects the wearer and the people around them. 

The role of the cloth mask is largely that of source control — that is, to prevent you from transmitting the virus to others if you are infected. 

A growing body of evidence supports the idea that a cloth face covering will cut down on COVID-19 transmission. This includes: 

  • A review of 172 studies worldwide from the medical journal The Lancet found that face mask use could result in "a large reduction" in risk of infection

  • A study of Mass General Brigham, the largest health care system in Massachusetts, found that rates of positivity among workers dropped after a universal mask policy was implemented 

  • Researchers at Texas A&M University compared trends in China, Italy and New York City and found that wearing a face mask reduced the number of infections by tens of thousands in Italy and New York

  • A laboratory study that visualized droplets with laser lighting as people spoke found that the trajectory of the droplets nearly disappeared when the person wore a face covering 

  • A CDC study that found two Missouri hairdressers who wore masks while working with clients and diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after did not pass the virus on to any of the clients who had been exposed 

What about the other way around? Do masks protect you from others? For cloth mask wearers, research is less clear on this front, but evidence is growing here, too. 

For example, a new paper led by a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and set to be published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine asserts that people wearing a mask will take in fewer coronavirus particles, making it easier for their immune systems to seek out and stamp out the ones that do get in. 

As evidence about masks reducing infections has grown, leaders who previously decried their use have now shifted their tone. In Texas, for example, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott instituted a statewide mask mandate as cases spiked after previously resisting such an order. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, issued a similar mandate in July, after saying in May that a statewide order wouldn’t work. And President Donald Trump, another Republican, endorsed masks on July 21 after months of critiquing their use.

The sources Schraa has linked to in online conversations about mask usage include stories from SOTT.net, which has landed on a list of sites found to be publishing misinformation about the coronavirus, and a video featuring an Infowars host on the website banned.video. 

The sources that back up claims of mask effectiveness, stem from large research universities, prominent labs and medical journals, and the CDC. 

Our rating 

In a critique of local governments’ ability to require people to wear masks, Schraa said that masks are "proven ineffective" at cutting down transmission of the coronavirus. 

But a growing number of studies — and a growing consensus among leaders, including President Trump — have shown the opposite to be true.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

 

Associated Press, "False health claims circulate about wearing masks during pandemic," May 15, 2020 

Oshkosh Northwestern, "As Winnebago County considers COVID-19 ordinance, its state representative claims masks are ineffective," July 24, 2020

Los Angeles Times, "CDC recommends wearing face masks during coronavirus pandemic," April 3, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "COVID-19 pandemic planning scenarios," last updated July 10, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Absence of apparent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from two stylists after exposure at a hair salon with a universal face covering policy — Springfield, Missouri, May 2020," July 17, 2020 

The Lancet, "Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis," June 1, 2020 

JAMA Network, "Association Between Universal Masking in a Health Care System and SARS-CoV-2 Positivity Among Health Care Workers," July 14, 2020 

Texas A&M Today, "Texas A&M Study: Face Masks Critical In Preventing Spread Of COVID-19," June 12, 2020

New England Journal of Medicine, "Visualizing Speech-Generated Oral Fluid Droplets with Laser Light Scattering," May 21, 2020 

Canadian Medical Association Journal, "Lack of COVID-19 transmission on an international flight," accessed July 29, 2020 

University of California, San Francisco, "Masks Do More than Protect Others during COVID-19: Reducing the Inoculum of SARS-CoV-2," accessed July 29, 2020 

Texas Tribune, "Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texans in most counties to wear masks in public," July 2, 2020 

The Hill, "Arkansas governor issues statewide mask mandate," July 16, 2020 

NewsGuard, Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, accessed July 29, 2020 

New York Times, "Trump, in a Shift, Endorses Masks and Says Virus Will Get Worse," July 21, 2020 

 

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More by Madeline Heim

Wisconsin GOP lawmaker wrong that masks have been "proven ineffective" against COVID-19

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